This is the first in a series of articles or ‘Dharma talks’ about the core aspects of Zen. Concepts like the search for happiness, the illusion of self and the need for compassion seem unrelated. However, by exploring these facets one by one you will see how they together form a beautiful and practical guide for life: the Zen philosophy.
According to Buddhist teachings, everybody is searching for happiness. It is the only reason we do what we do. Eating and sleeping, buying stuff, even bad things, we all do it because we think it will give us happiness. It is deep within our system to strive for happiness. It is the result of million years of evolution. If we are happy, we feel good inside.
Why do we want Happiness?
To understand why we want happiness, we have to think about what happiness is. Why do we feel happy when we eat, when we drive a big car, when we have a lot of money or a lot of friends or a beautiful partner? The common factor in these things is that they all make us feel more secure. If we have these things, it means that our existence is not (or a bit less) in danger.
So happiness actually is safety. It is an inner force that’s built inside all life forms. If you strive for happiness and thus safety, you’ll live longer and have a better chance at reproduction. So our desire for happiness actually is the result of an evolutionary process and deeply ingrained into our brains.
How to be Happy.
If we are completely built to be happy, then why is it so difficult to reach happiness?
Well, there are a few problems with our search for happiness. The first problem is that our need for happiness is regulated by a very old part of the brain: the cerebellum or little brain. In Buddhism, we call it ‘the monkey mind,’ but you can also see it as a little anxious rabbit inside your head. Always alert for danger and ready to flee.
This part of our brain regulates our basic functions (like survival) and is the most directly connected to our body. It is very good at taking care of our needs, but it isn’t very smart; it will only look for instant fulfillment of what it thinks you need. It can’t plan ahead or think of long-term consequences. We need the more modern parts of our brain for this: the cerebrum or large brains. However, because our monkey mind can think so fast, most of its processes are subconscious. And our large brains needs conscious thoughts to be able to think about whether something will also help us to be happy in a few hours or days. Or if it is something that will give us only momentary pleasure.
Practicing Zen will help to make your subconscious become conscious. When our inner motives become clear we can better understand and handle them.
In the next article, I will discuss the problems we face when searching for happiness and how Zen can offer solutions for this.